MADISON – A gym and two Dane County residents sued public health officials Monday to try to overturn a ban on gatherings that is meant to keep Thanksgiving events from worsening the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, argues the restrictions on family gatherings and sporting events are invalid because they were put in place by public health officials rather than the Dane County Board or Madison Common Council.
If the state Supreme Court agrees with those bringing the lawsuit, city and county officials across the state will have to vote on the finest details of their COVID-19 policies instead of leaving that work to health officials.
The Dane County Board and Common Council have given their combined public health department broad leeway to set such policies. The lawsuit contends elected officials can’t do that and must vote on specific restrictions before they can take effect.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the legal advocacy group and others who have challenged emergency health orders are responsible for promoting skepticism of mitigation efforts, resulting in overwhelmed hospitals.
“Conservative legal activists have spent the better part of the past seven months fighting medicine and the only interventions available to slowing the spread of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. Now, Wisconsin is in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in our state’s history because groups like this fought masks and social distancing for months, sowing chaos that’s now resulted in overflowing hospitals,” Parisi said in a statement.
Those bringing the lawsuit filed the case directly with the state Supreme Court and asked the justices to rule within days.
“COVID-19 should be taken seriously. But these decisions must be made by the local governing body,” WILL’s president, Rick Esenberg, said in a statement. “Banning private family gatherings just before Thanksgiving, while allowing Black Friday shopping, makes little sense.”
Plaintiff Jason Orkowski, who owns a Fitchburg gymnastics center, said the closure of his business Gymfinity has “prevented these young women from continuing their training regime which, in turn, jeopardizes their participation in the 2020-21 gymnastics season and threatens their college recruitment and scholarship opportunities.”
Orkowski said he has estimated that his gym will lose $40,000 in revenue because of the Dane County health order.
He said the facility should remain open because he has a strict and extensive cleaning protocol, screens visitors, staff and gymnasts for elevated temperatures, and does not allow parents to observe their children in person more than once a month.
Jeffery Becker, a Verona father of four children who play for the Madison 56ers, a competitive traveling youth soccer team, alleged the order would have a profound impact on his children’s mental health if they could not play soccer on the team.
“Soccer is what keeps my kids healthy and sane,” he said.
Andrea Klein of Stoughton, whose sons participate in the Stoughton Youth Hockey Association, also joined the lawsuit.
“Families and kids have already been isolated and struggling, and now being told we cannot be with loved ones for the Thanksgiving holiday feels life a knife being jabbed into an already very deep wound,” she said in an affidavit.
Parisi said the county will “vigorously defend” the county’s health orders.
“We are now in the midst of what was once the unimaginable,” he said. “This is not the time for more division and havoc that harms human health and results in lives lost.”
The health department last week issued an order banning indoor gatherings of any size other than those with household members. Under that policy, extended family and loved ones aren’t able to get together inside for Thanksgiving.
The restrictions also apply to sports games and practices, group exercises, meetings, trainings, conferences and movies.
Karri Bartlett, chief of COVID-19 operations for Public Health Madison and Dane County, said in an interview last week the county’s biggest concern right now is hospitals becoming more overwhelmed after Thanksgiving gatherings take place.
“I do think the holidays are going to be big and bad because people want to be around family,” Bartlett said. “This is going to be tricky this next couple months.”
Wisconsin Hospitals Association president and CEO Eric Borgerding told Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday that at the “very minimum,” local government officials should be allowed to make health decisions for their communities.
“Wisconsin has shown an inability, at least from a statewide level, to take steps related to masking or limiting the sizes of gatherings,” Borgerding told WPR. “Whether that can happen in any kind of a meaningful way, through legislation or some sort of collaboration or cooperation between the Legislature and the governor, I think that remains to be seen.”
WILL, which is funded by the conservative Bradley Foundation, has been involved in other challenges to state and local policies meant to curb COVID-19.
The group has sued to overturn Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ health order, including his mask mandate, and asked the high court to block the closure of Racine schools. Those cases are pending.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.